He is one of the most controversial figures in American history.
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”
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- The House of Representatives voted 311-114 to expel Rep. George Santos (R-NY) from Congress, making him the sixth member of the House to ever be expelled in U.S. history. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) has 10 days to announce a special election for Santos's seat. (The expulsion)
- Israel reportedly had information about Hamas’s October attack months ago but doubted its ability to pull the attack off. Meanwhile, bombing restarted in Gaza after the Israel-Hamas ceasefire ended. (The latest)
- Sandra Day O'Connor, the first female U.S. Supreme Court justice, died at the age of 93. (The death)
- Venezuelans voted to approve a referendum that claims sovereignty over an oil and mineral rich area of Guyana it says was stolen more than a century ago. (The referendum)
- Ballistic missiles fired by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels struck three commercial ships in the Red Sea on Friday. Meanwhile, a U.S. warship shot down three Houthi-launched drones during the attacks. (The exchanges)
- BREAKING: North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R) announced he is suspending his campaign for president. (The announcement)
Henry Kissinger's death. On Wednesday, Henry Kissinger, the long-time American diplomat and political scientist who was the only person to ever serve concurrently as both secretary of state and national security adviser, died at the age of 100. Kissinger, who was born in Bavaria in 1923 to a family of German Jews who fled to the United States during the rise of the Nazis, was one of the most polarizing figures in American history. He served under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, though he advised 12 presidents from both parties — more than a quarter of all men who have ever held the office.
Kissinger was known for his cunning and subtle diplomacy, and is credited by many contemporary secretaries of state for effectively writing the playbook on American diplomacy. He is best known for negotiating the United States' exit from Vietnam, shaping America's relationship with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and negotiating the earliest days of the present-day U.S.-China relationship. He shared the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in negotiating U.S. withdrawal from the Vietnam War, though the conflict would continue for two more years and Saigon would ultimately fall to the communist regime. Kissinger was later criticized for needlessly extending the war for three years by undermining peace terms that were available in 1969, though he long rejected that as a “myth.”
At different times, Kissinger was loathed by the American left, who believe he should have been charged with war crimes, and by the American right, who believe he should have acted more strongly against communist China.
“Henry Kissinger… literally wrote the book on diplomacy,” John Kerry, who was then secretary of state, said in 2014, adding that Kissinger “gave us the vocabulary of modern diplomacy, the very words ‘shuttle diplomacy’ and ‘strategic patience.’”
However, with the benefit of hindsight and declassified documents, his legacy has been marred. Kissinger helped architect the secret carpet bombing of Cambodia and Laos in the late 1960s, which resulted in the deaths of more than 50,000 civilians. Another 2 million Cambodians were later slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge insurgents, which was blamed by some on Nixon and Kissinger policies that led to Cambodia’s fall. He also architected the toppling of democratically elected leaders in Chile and Argentina, backed Pakistan’s genocidal war in Bangladesh, and approved Indonesia’s deadly invasion of East Timor, all in the name of fighting the rise of communism.
And yet, he was also involved in the end and prevention of conflicts. He is credited by many for preventing larger-scale conflicts with the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War. In 1973, he negotiated the end of the Yom Kippur War that began after Egypt and Syria attacked Israel. For his service, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Ford.
Kissinger was active in diplomacy late into his life, even appearing in the Trump White House. Last summer, at the age of 100, he met with China's President Xi Jinping. While on tour for his book in 2022, he was asked if he regretted any of his decisions.
"I’ve been thinking about these problems all my life. It’s my hobby as well as my occupation," he said. "And so the recommendations I made were the best of which I was then capable."
Today, we're going to examine some arguments about Kissinger's legacy from the right and left, then my take.
What the left is saying.
- The left is mostly critical of Kissinger’s legacy, framing it in terms of the violence enabled by his policies in global conflicts.
- Some say Kissinger’s life is too complex to be reduced to a handful of decisions he made or influenced.
- Others contend that his legacy is still an open question and there are lessons to be learned from both his mistakes and accomplishments.
In The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote about “Kissinger’s triumphs and catastrophes.”
“Henry Kissinger was the wisest of American foreign policy leaders and the most oblivious, the most farsighted and the most myopic, the one with the greatest legacy — and the one we should most study to learn what not to do,” Kristof said. “For someone so savvy about diplomacy, he was blind to the force of nationalism, and many of his worst mistakes involved his dismissal of small countries as pawns to be sacrificed — along with the people in them.”
“One of the greatest mistakes America has made in the post-World War II period has been the repeated failure to appreciate the force of nationalism — and Kissinger exemplified that,” Kristof added. “I see Kissinger as far too complicated to fit the caricature of either heroic statesman or war criminal. What his admirers miss is that hundreds of thousands of people died unnecessarily because of his missteps, and his blunders in Vietnam, South Asia and elsewhere damaged America’s standing. What his critics miss is that he reduced the risk of war among the superpowers and in the Middle East, while greatly advancing arms control. In some ways, he made the world safer.”
In MSNBC, Hayes Brown said “Henry Kissinger’s legacy is best measured in bodies.”
“Kissinger was a man for whom power and influence were resources for achieving his goals and, ultimately, goals unto themselves,” Brown wrote. “Concepts such as ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’ could be weighed against whether a state was stronger or weaker than its peers. It’s not hard to see how he applied that maxim in his own life, as he sought to attach himself to those who could turn his theories into reality.”
“As records of his time in office have become more accessible, it’s become harder to ignore the blood on his hands,” Brown said. “Kissinger was a leading voice calling for the expansion of the Vietnam War in 1970. On the grounds that it would provide space for American troops to disengage, Kissinger advocated a secret bombing campaign against neighboring Cambodia, where North Vietnamese communist forces were camping and receiving aid. By 1973, the carpet-bombing had expanded to cover half of the country. Though no firm numbers exist, anywhere from 150,000–500,000 civilians were killed as a result of that campaign.”
The Washington Post editorial board suggested “Kissinger’s legacy is still up for debate.”
“In Mr. Kissinger’s relentless pursuit of what he perceived as U.S. interests, he was accused of appeasing dictators and abetting war crimes. Mr. Kissinger enabled and encouraged some of the worst offenses of Nixon, including the secret bombing of Cambodia. He also supported a U.S. effort to topple Chile’s elected socialist president and backed Pakistan’s bloody assault on Bangladesh,” the board wrote. “Noting his errors is not to downplay Mr. Kissinger’s significance, but to prove it.”
“Mr. Kissinger’s heyday was a time when the secretary of state could strike grand bargains that seem elusive to U.S. leaders today. Such a time seems long distant,” the board said. “But even if opportunities for sweeping diplomacy seem fewer, Mr. Kissinger’s legacy contains lessons as immediate as ever. One is that U.S. foreign policy conducted without regard for democratic values can achieve much — but also can miss much.”
What the right is saying.
- The right mostly celebrates Kissinger and says he lived an impactful life of service.
- Some concede mistakes in his approach to foreign policy but argue he ultimately made the world a safer place.
- Others rebuke those on the left who revel in Kissinger’s death.
In The Spectator World, Charles Lipson praised “the remarkable life of Henry Kissinger.”
“His prominence is well deserved. The only modern secretaries of state who rank with him are George C. Marshall and Dean Acheson, who constructed the architecture of Cold War containment in the late 1940s. Kissinger’s central achievement was updating that architecture to include China, less as an American ally than as a Russian adversary. Until the late 1960s, Washington and Beijing had seen each other as bitter foes, not only because they had fought each other in the Korean War but because they represented the era’s two opposed ideologies,” Lipson wrote.
Kissinger should be remembered “not just at his heights, but as someone whose life traces a remarkable arc… He fled the Nazis with his Jewish family in 1938, fought against them in World War Two, returned to America and gained a doctorate from Harvard, rose to the highest levels of academia and then reached the highest appointed levels of government in his adopted country. Amid the debates about his life and career, he will surely be remembered as one of the most significant statesmen of the Cold War era.”
In The Dispatch, Kevin D. Williamson explored why “Kissinger will never be forgiven” for his role in the Vietnam War.
“The Vietnam War was from the beginning a Democratic project, one of those many conflicts that a certain kind of prairie populist used to denounce as ‘Democrat wars,’” Williamson said. “The United States did not achieve its particular military goals in Vietnam, but, engaged on a dozen open and covert fronts, the United States did ultimately succeed in the larger project of which Vietnam was a part: winning the Cold War, defeating the worldwide communist enterprise. For that success, Henry Kissinger never was forgiven, and never will be.”
“There will be no debate about whether Henry Kissinger lived a consequential life. There will be a great deal of debate about whether he lived a good one. There shouldn’t be: Kissinger was an extraordinarily effective advocate and diplomat, and he was on the right side of the most important conflicts of his time, while his opponents were, to great and greatly culpable degrees, on the wrong side,” Williamson wrote. “That this should be regarded as a crime against humanity tells us more about Kissinger’s enemies than it does about the late secretary of state.”
In The New York Post, David Harsanyi criticized the left for “danc[ing] on Kissinger’s grave.”
“For decades now, Henry Kissinger has been the American left’s favorite punching bag. In this Jewish immigrant with the dense accent and deliberate cadence, Democrats found their Dr. Strangelove. President Richard Nixon’s henchman. War criminal. Some of Kissinger’s sins were real; many of them were imagined. Mostly, though, the left detests him for being an unrepentant enemy of communism and a Cold War warrior,” Harsanyi wrote. “In the left’s revisionism, Kissinger could be likened to Slobodan Milosevic, or maybe Hitler, for his ‘secret bombing’ of ‘neutral’ Cambodia, a place that was infested with Vietcong who were retrenching to move against American troops and, ultimately, bring misery to millions.”
“Kissinger knew we ‘stood for something above and beyond’ our ‘material achievements’ and ‘purely pragmatic policy’ is unrealistic and unsustainable. Kissinger’s overriding goal was checking and weakening some of the most brutal dictatorships the world had ever seen. That’s why the contemporary American left has such disdain for the man,” Harsanyi said. “The American left can’t begrudgingly admit anything Kissinger did was good, of course, because he’s a supervillain. And the Kissinger Mythology allows them to feel like we were no better than our adversaries.”
Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.
- I don’t want to flatten a person into their worst actions, but for people like Kissinger, his worst actions matter more.
- Time and time again — in Cambodia, Bangladesh, East Timor, Argentina, and Chile — he advanced “our best interests” over human rights.
- He also prevented conflicts and helped usher in American prosperity and global peace, but I can’t honestly say that the good outweighed the bad.
I have a general philosophy about evaluating people's actions, and it's one I try to employ in Tangle: Nobody should be defined solely by their worst moments.
I've written about this in the past, like when discussing cancel culture or confessing my own sins. However, I also think someone with a global impact like Henry Kissinger’s can — and should — be defined by the tangible, easily identifiable, and very obvious horrors he wrought on the world. I say this with no malice, only as a matter of being clear-eyed in the way we discuss historical figures.
The most illuminating American history is rarely written in the first years after events occur but rather decades later, when we get access to archived papers and conversations, declassified documents, and first-hand accounts from a host of people who were "in the room" who are finally willing to speak honestly about what they saw. And with the benefit of that hindsight and even his own words added to the historical record, we can say a few things about Kissinger that I think are notable enough to be the central focus of his legacy.
He supported and orchestrated the toppling of democratically elected leaders in nations that are still fighting off instability and political fractures because of those actions. John Kerry is right that he wrote the book on U.S. foreign policy, but whole chapters of that book advance the worldview that abandoning U.S. values is acceptable when it serves our own interests. It is precisely this hypocritical posture that has garnered so much ill will toward present-day U.S. positioning on the global stage. As Kissinger infamously quipped: "The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer."
The death toll alone is enough to make his decisions during the Vietnam War the headline of any story about his legacy. Kissinger and Nixon ordered clandestine bombing raids in Cambodia, a neutral nation during the war, for the purpose of trying to flush out communist Viet Cong forces in the east of the country. In 1973, a Pentagon report was released showing Kissinger approved each of the 3,875 bombing raids, as well as a strategy to hide the raids from the press. Estimates on how many people those raids killed range from 50,000 to 150,000, and unexploded bombs all across Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam have maimed and killed people for decades after the war — and continue to today.
In 1971, Kissinger was central to the United States' backing of West Pakistan as it unleashed a genocide against residents of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Kissinger's goal was to win support of a friendly regime that could help him engage China and tip the global power scales toward a friendly U.S.-China relationship. It was a chess move, with civilians as the pawns. The cost was hundreds of thousands of innocent lives, many of which were taken thanks to Kissinger's illegal arms transfers to Pakistan. In Vox, Dylan Matthews wrote about what Kissinger and Nixon knew to be true but still allowed to happen:
Midway through the slaughter, the CIA privately estimated that 200,000 [Bengladeshis] had been killed. A later study using world health survey statistics puts the total at 269,000 violent war deaths. Some 10 million Bangladeshis were forced into India as refugees, and over 200,000 Bangladeshi women were raped as part of an organized campaign of intimidation and terror.
Three years later, he gave an explicit green light to Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in an effort to achieve "stability" and as a sign of loyalty to a leader who had helped the U.S. overthrow a communist-sympathetic leader. An estimated 100,000 civilians died in the ensuing war. In Chile and Argentina, he supported military coups against democratically elected leaders like Chile's socialist president Salvador Allende and Argentinian President Isabel Perón. "The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves," Kissinger said of Chileans picking their own leaders. The Global South has not forgotten.
To me, these decisions should be the central focus of any discussion about Kissinger. But I'll add a few things that are necessary to say in any fair discussion of his legacy, as well.
First of all, I am writing about what was and not what could have been. It's possible, of course, that without Kissinger's maneuvering — however manipulative or violent it was — the country I live in today would be less safe and less free than it is. Unlike my parents, I didn't spend my childhood hiding under desks in preparation for nuclear war with Russia and I walk the streets of the U.S. today with close to zero fear of an attack on our own soil or a military power that would ever challenge us. While our country is rife with domestic violence, I get to enjoy a Pax Americana Kissinger helped create.
Second, Kissinger may not dispute any of what I wrote above, but was interested more in advancing U.S. interests and stability abroad than in the moral high ground or advancing democracy. In his mind that was going to happen with an American upper hand in the balance of power among the great nations, preventing another world war. Compared to the first half of the 20th century, plenty of people could argue that (with exceptions) that stability has broadly been achieved.
Third, and finally, it is always easier to look back with 20/20 hindsight and say what could have been. It's a lot easier to criticize Kissinger now with the benefit of that hindsight, though I struggle to believe there should have been any ambiguity about some of his most cruel and reprehensible decisions at the time. Still, it has to be acknowledged that it was a different world then, and Kissinger had the blessing and curse of being responsible for making the tough choices to navigate it.
Does that make me view him any more favorably? Not much. A man's impact on the world can be great and profound and deserving of recognition while also being defined — on net — by violence, lies and mistakes. I can't say what would have come of the U.S. in a world where Kissinger didn't exist, but I can look honestly at the world we live in now and the way he helped create it. And I find it hard to view that record with any admiration.
Your questions, answered.
Q: Any comments on the minor (?) conflict between Canada and India?
— Ray from Springfield, Massachusetts
Tangle: I think India was responsible for an assassination on Canadian soil. And the situation is probably not as minor as it may seem, since it involves the world’s tenth largest economy by GDP (Canada), the world’s largest Democracy (India), an important geopolitical alliance between them, and broader alliances between India and the traditional West. Also, the story seems to now include the United States, which will only inject octane into an already explosive situation.
So — what’s the conflict? Before I even get started, let me add two big disclaimers here. First of all, we still don’t know that the Indian government is responsible for anything, and I certainly do not want to report anything here as fact. No matter how informed my speculation is, it will still be speculation, and the wisest thing to do is to wait for more information before drawing firm conclusions. Secondly, this is a geopolitical conflict, meaning national security and global alliances are on the line for Canada and India — as well as feelings of national pride and public sentiment, which can be very deep and powerful.
Put differently: Do you know enough about the Israel-Palestine conflict to know that it’s extremely controversial? If you don’t know about India’s Khalistan controversy, think of the sentiments behind it as just as emotionally charged.
In the north of India, which is a predominantly Hindu country, there is a region on the border with Pakistan called Punjab which is predominantly Sikh. There is a separatist movement within India to carve a Sikh-majority state out of the Punjab called Khalistan, which the Indian government has deemed a terrorist movement. In June of this year, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh separatist and Canadian citizen, was killed in Canada. In September, the Canadian Prime Minister asked for Indian cooperation to look into “credible allegations” that Nijjar was murdered by Indian agents.
And India, by and large, took offense. The government strongly denied the allegations, calling them “absurd and motivated.” Indian media accused Canada of harboring terrorists. Then, the Indian government pushed Canada to expel 41 diplomats.
But the denials, though emotional and extremely charged, all fall flat. It’s hard to imagine Canada’s Prime Minister, months after the death of one of its citizens, deciding to blow up an important diplomatic relationship if there were no evidence pointing to India’s involvement. And now, as we reported last Thursday, federal prosecutors in the United States are saying they uncovered an Indian plot to assassinate another Khalistan separatist who is an American citizen.
So again: Very tense, very complex, and seems to be less and less minor all the time. We may cover the situation in Tangle more in-depth, but for now, you can read the New York Times’ comprehensive timeline of events (paywall) for the recap.
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Under the radar.
The Supreme Court is going to hear two huge cases today. First, it will hear oral arguments in a case about Purdue Pharma's settlement over the opioid epidemic. Critical to the settlement is a release that shields the Sackler family, which owns Purdue, from any civil lawsuits that stem from the opioid crisis. Approval of the bankruptcy plan with that stipulation has been challenged to the Supreme Court. Second is the "quadrillion-dollar question," a case that could upend the U.S. tax code. Moore v. United States will determine whether the federal government can tax unrealized gains, or assets that haven't been sold. You can read CBS's coverage of the Purdue Pharma case here and The Hill's coverage of the quadrillion dollar question here.
- 32%. The percentage of U.S. international relations scholars who said Kissinger was the most effective U.S. Secretary of State in the past 50 years in a 2014 poll by the College of William & Mary.
- #1. Kissinger’s rank in Gallup’s 1973 and 1974 list of men Americans admire most.
- 1977. The year Kissinger was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Gerald Ford.
- 69%. Kissinger’s job approval as secretary of state in January 1976, according to an NBC News poll.
- 57%. Kissinger’s job approval in December 1976.
- 17. The number of confirmed meetings between Kissinger and Vladimir Putin.
- 100. The approximate number of visits Kissinger made to China.
- One year ago today we didn't have a newsletter, but I'd just written a Friday edition about how the Supreme Court should adopt a code of conduct.
- The most clicked link in Thursday's newsletter was the rumor that Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) might leave Congress.
- 2024 Poll: In a truly shocking result, 1,222 Tangle readers responded to our poll asking who they would support in a head-to-head presidential election between Joe Biden and Nikky Haley, with 66% saying Haley and 34% saying Biden. As a caveat, our poll is not scientific, and over 100 people answered the poll just to write in an opinion but not answer the question. "Neither. In this case, I would vote third party," one such respondent said.
- Nothing to do with politics: A car-sized tumbleweed on a highway in California.
- Take the poll. What do you think about Henry Kissinger's legacy? Let us know!
Have a nice day.
Last week, we opened up the Tangle inbox and found a nice story from one of our readers. Aidan Walker is a sophomore at Princeton and the CFO of the Princeton Electric Speedboating Club. He wrote in to tell us about his club’s accomplishment last month, when the speedboating team hosted a private race event at Lake Townsend, North Carolina, and broke the record for fastest electric boat in the world. The team’s flagship boat, Big Bird, ran two "flying kilometer” runs, achieving a top speed of 117.50 mph on the second run and an average speed of 114.20 mph over both. The top speed beats the official average speed record held by the English automobile manufacturer Jaguar as well as the unofficial single-point speed record held by electric marine startup Vision Marine. “We truly believe that our success is a testament to our passion of proving electric viability in a boating industry dominated by gas as well as the power of the human spirit and the underdog,” Aidan said. Speed on the Water has the story.
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